International attention on Yemen is erratic. In the past year, media interest has been raised over a failed attempt to blow-up a US aeroplane on Christmas Day by a Nigerian student allegedly trained in Yemen; a suicide bomb attack aimed, unsuccessfully, at the British Ambassador in the capital city of Sana'a; and, most recently, reports of American cruise missiles being used in clandestine operations against al-Qaeda targets. For Western policy-makers and security analysts, Yemen hovers in the margins, commanding less attention than Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The international 'Friends of Yemen' contact group, who met last week seem keen to buck the trend and create a platform for sustained and coordinated engagement in the country. Security is not the only concern: Yemen's problems are that of a fragile state - social, political, economic and entrenched - and require more than a glancing thought.
A Support Package
The 'Friends' - comprised of ministers from 22 countries and members of the UN, EU, Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, IMF and World Bank - announced an ongoing 'package of support' for the government of Yemen. The package is 'all-inclusive', with support pledged for economic, development, justice and security sector reforms.
Elements of progress are already being celebrated. Fuel subsidies have been reduced (a major drain on national resources that tend to only benefit the ruling elite), a ceasefire holds - precariously - in conflict-affected Sa'dah region and the Yemeni government has agreed to an IMF programme of economic reform. The on-again off-again national dialogue between the regime and opposition parties is also, for the moment, on-again.
Yemen's Friends are eager to make it clear that this is a two-way relationship: much was made at the meeting of "mutual accountability" and linking support to Yemen's own commitments and performance. Pressure is being put on Yemen to guarantee human rights and political inclusion, as well as continue with the reform agenda.
In theory, the Friends' approach is grounded in the need to address Yemen's underlying challenges - a struggling economy, domestic conflict and a government perceived to be weak and, by some, illegitimate - paving the way for a secure, stable and developed Yemen in the long-term. However, in practice, it's clearly proving difficult even to achieve the short-term basics.
The challenge lies in framing the desired reforms in terms of incentives that appeal to elite self-interest. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for over 30 years, presiding over informal patronage networks that intersect and overlap with state bureaucracy. These complex power structures do not fit well with Western expectations of a strong central state. As it stands, the Friends of Yemen agenda is largely technical, and the power vested in these informal networks makes it difficult to push through technical reforms.
The 'comprehensive approach' agreed by the Friends is complicated by the US security agenda and the drive to eliminate al-Qaeda. In Washington, there is an ongoing debate between the Department of Defence, the State Department and the CIA over the right way to address the emerging threat. Although they agree with their Friends of Yemen counterparts on paper, the US still wants to see quick results and tends to prioritise counter-terrorism initiatives and short-term successes. Recent reports suggest the Pentagon is about to assign over a billion dollars of military aid to Yemen.
Anti-terrorism measures, particularly if badly handled, have a record in Yemen of driving popular resentment. Security sector assistance allows President Saleh's family to consolidate power through their military structures, which works directly against efforts to improve political inclusion. Security aid can also be self-defeating, as it leaves Saleh with little incentive to defeat al-Qaeda if they are also seen as a way to finance his regime.
A British Priority
The UK government is not only taking a lead on the process but also has a new national security priority on fragile states. Yemen, and the Friends of Yemen process, provide a test case scenario "to show that the international community can act effectively to support a fragile State in danger of failure."